The GiveWell Blog

GiveWell Labs update and priority causes

[Added August 27, 2014: GiveWell Labs is now known as the Open Philanthropy Project.]

Over the past few months, the main focus of GiveWell Labs has been strategic cause selection. Before diving into a particular cause, we want to make sure we’ve done a reasonable amount of work looking at all our options and picking our causes strategically.

We’ve published our take on what information we can find on philanthropy’s past successes and our observations on what foundations work on today (both with spreadsheets so others can examine our data), and we’ve published our framework for identifying a good cause. With these in mind, this post lists causes we’re planning to focus on over the short term.

We are not at all confident that these causes represent the most promising ones; we see our list of priority causes as a starting point for learning. By publishing our reasoning, along with all data we’ve used, we hope to elicit feedback at this early stage; in the course of investigating our priority causes, we expect to learn more about these causes and about the best way to choose causes in general. And we have prioritized our causes partly based on the potential for learning, not just based on how promising we would guess that they are. Also note that these causes do not represent restrictions – we will consider outstanding giving opportunities in any category – but rather areas of focus for investigation.

We currently believe that no established philanthropist engages in strategic cause selection – the practice of listing all the causes one might work on, and choosing them based on a combination of “potential impact” and “underinvestment by other philanthropists.” (This is not to say that no established philanthropist picks good causes – we believe many have picked excellent causes, perhaps through more implicit “strategy” – it is just to say that we know of no established philanthropist applying the sort of explicit strategic selection we envision.) So we believe we are in uncharted territory; thus, we expect to hit a fair amount of dead ends and to do a lot of revision and learning, but we also hope that strategic cause selection will eventually become a valuable tool for having maximal impact with one’s giving.

Summary of our priority causes (details follow):

  • Global health and nutrition is an area we know well and believe has many good giving opportunities. It is our current top priority. We seek to find more opportunities for donors along the lines of our top charities; we also seek to learn from existing foundations about the best higher-risk projects they are unable to fund.
  • Funding scientific research is a good conceptual fit for philanthropy, accounts for many of philanthropy’s most impressive success stories, and may provide bang-for-the-buck as good as or better than global health and nutrition.
  • Meta-research is our term for trying to improve the systematic incentives that academic researchers face, to bring them more in line with producing maximally useful work. We believe there is substantial room for improvement in this alignment, and that this cause is therefore promising as a high-leverage way to get the benefits of funding research; current philanthropic attention to this cause appears very low.
  • Averting and preparing for global catastrophic risks (GCRs) including climate change is a good conceptual fit for philanthropy and may provide bang-for-the-buck as good as or better than global health and nutrition. Today’s philanthropy appears to invest moderately in climate change, but very little in other GCRs.

We also briefly discuss popular causes that we aren’t currently prioritizing.

Top-priority causes

Global health and nutrition
Based on our past work seeking outstanding charities, we feel that global health and nutrition is the strongest area within the category of “directly helping the disadvantaged.” It’s also an area that we know fairly well (again, because of our past work), so we expect to be able to find strong giving opportunities more quickly here than in areas we’re less familiar with. Because of this, global health and nutrition is our top priority for GiveWell Labs.

Our plans:

  • As discussed at our 2011 research outline, we are investigating the idea of restricted funding to large organizations in order to fund proven, cost-effective interventions that we can’t fund otherwise. Our goal here would be to, in a sense, “create new top charities” – create funding vehicles that allow individual donors to deliver proven, cost-effective health and nutrition interventions. (One could think of this project as trying to create an “AMF for vaccines, nutrition, or other promising intervention.”)
  • We are also interested in higher-risk, higher-upside projects within this area. We are aware of some major foundations that pursue these sorts of opportunities and have more investigative capacity and relevant background than we do. So our ideal would be to leverage these foundations’ investigative work, by working with them to identify the best giving opportunities that they have sourced but cannot fully fund. We are currently looking into the possibility of doing this. If it proves unworkable, we may seek other ways to investigate high-risk, high-upside opportunities in this area.

Funding scientific research
As discussed previously, we believe many of the most impressive “success stories” in the history of philanthropy are in the category of funding research, particularly biomedical research. We also find research funding to be a good conceptual fit for philanthropy, as well as something that could plausibly get better “bang for the buck” than global health and nutrition interventions (since it involves creating global public goods – once developed, a new insight can be applied on a global scale and potentially for a long time).

In philanthropy currently, it appears that biomedical research is a moderately popular area, while natural sciences are less popular but still have some philanthropic presence. Of course, much of the funding for (early-stage) research comes via government and/or university money, but we hypothesize that philanthropy may be able to play a special role in supplementing these systems, by specifically aiming to support the kind of work that the traditional academic system and government funders cannot or will not. (We believe that there may be ways in which the traditional system falls short of maximum value-added, as discussed in the next section.) When we look at the activities of current philanthropic players (see our notes on the biomedical research activities of the top 100 foundations), it seems possible to us that relatively few of these players are specifically looking to supplement or improve on the government and university systems (by contrast, we believe that many efforts within U.S. education and global health seek to improve on and contrast with government programs in these areas).

So we see funding research as a potentially high-impact area, and we’re especially interested in the possibility of opportunities that the government/university systems systematically underfund. In addition, funding research is fundamentally different from the sort of direct-aid-oriented work we’ve focused on in the past, and we feel that investigating it will be an important learning experience.

Our next steps will be to

  • Seek out conversations with the major foundations that fund scientific research
  • Ask researchers about under-invested-in opportunities, while conducting “meta-research” conversations (see next section)

In the course of our research on outstanding charities, we’ve come to the working conclusion that academic research – at least on topics relevant to us – is falling far short of its maximum value-added to society, largely due to problematic incentives. We laid out some of our views last year in Suggestions for the Social Sciences; we also think that GiveWell Board member Tim Ogden’s recent SSIR piece is worth reading on this topic.

In brief, we believe that (a) academic incentives do not appear fully aligned with what would be most useful (for example, replicating studies is highly useful but does not appear to be popular in academia); (b) academics rarely engage in practices – such as preregistration, and sharing of data and code – that could make their research easier for outsiders to evaluate and use in decisionmaking; (c) too much academic research is restricted to pay-access to journals, rather than being in a format and place that would allow maximum accessibility. Based on informal conversations, we believe these issues are present across academia generally, not just in the areas we’ve examined, though we intend to investigate more.

We have seen some philanthropy focused on (c). Two of the 82 foundations we’ve examined have program areas that we’ve categorized as “scholarship and open access”; the Wellcome Trust in the UK is also pushing for open access. However, we’re not aware of any foundation making a concerted push to improve (a) and (b), aligning academic incentives with what would be most useful to society.

As discussed in the previous section, we think of research as a highly promising and important area for philanthropy, based both on history and on the conceptual possibility of impact-per-dollar-spent. If problematic incentives are causing academic research to systematically fall short of its maximum potential value-added to society, investments in meta-research could have highly leveraged impact. That’s sufficient to think that this cause has some potential; the fact that it appears to be largely absent from today’s large-scale philanthropy increases its appeal.

We will write more in the future about our plans for investigating meta-research, which overlap strongly with our plans for investigating direct funding of research (the previous section). We are aiming to speak to a broad range of academics about whether, and how, the work being done in their fields – and the general practices of their field – diverge from what would add maximum value to society.

Global catastrophic risks (GCRs), including climate change
Foundations work to address a variety of threats – such as climate change, nuclear weapons proliferation, and bioterrorism – that could conceivably lead to major global catastrophes.

We see this work as an excellent conceptual fit for philanthropy, because the potential catastrophes are so far-reaching that it is hard to articulate any other actor that has good incentives to invest sufficiently in preparing for and averting them. (Governments do have some incentives to avert catastrophic risks, but catastrophic risk preparation has no natural “interest groups” to lobby for it, and it is easy to imagine that governments may not invest sufficiently or efficiently.) As with research, we find it plausible that opportunities in this area could have good “bang for the buck” relative to international aid, simply because they seek to avert such large catastrophes.

In philanthropy currently, working on climate change is moderately popular, but work on other risks is extremely rare. Out of 82 foundations we examined, two work on nuclear non-proliferation and one works on biological threats; none work on other potential threats.

One concern about this area is that gauging the success or failure of projects seems extremely difficult to do, even in a proximate way, because projects are so focused on low-probability events.

We are currently reviewing the literature on climate change and will be posting more in the future. We are also advising Nick Beckstead and a few volunteers from Giving What We Can as they collect information on the organizations working on GCRs other than climate change.

A note on policy advocacy
A long-term goal of ours is to learn more about policy advocacy, which is a general philanthropic tactic (an option for funding in almost any cause) that we know very little about. For the near future, we do not plan on recommending any policy advocacy funding; we plan on allocating small amounts of time to conversations with people in the space to learn more about how it works in general.

Popular causes we don’t plan to prioritize
Our survey of the current state of philanthropy highlighted the following as particularly popular causes that aren’t listed above. We will be writing more about them; for now, we provide very brief thoughts and relevant links to some work we’ve done in the past.

  • U.S./developed-world education: we perceive this as perhaps the most popular cause in philanthropy today. Many major foundations and philanthropists are working on it, and have worked on it in the past, yet progress seems slow on achieving – and rolling out – evidence-backed ways to improve educational outcomes. For more, see our report on U.S. charities.
  • U.S. poverty alleviation (including health care): we see a lot of philanthropy focused in these areas today, yet we believe the bang-for-the-buck is poor relative to international aid. For more, see our report on U.S. charities, Your Dollar Goes Further Overseas, Poor in the U.S. = rich, and Hunger Here vs. Hunger There.
  • Arts and culture. We don’t see GiveWell as having much potential value-added in this area. (We’ll be elaborating in a future post.)
  • Animal welfare; environmental conservation (not including climate change-related work). Current GiveWell staff are primarily interested in humanitarian giving, and we don’t see these areas as being directly enough connected to humanitarian values to merit a high priority. At one point we advised a volunteer who did some work investigating animal welfare charities, and we may later discuss this work.
  • Funding social entrepreneurs and social enterprise. We do not find this area promising; we will be writing about it more in the future. Also see Acumen Fund and Social Enterprise Investment and When Donations and Profits Meet, Beware.
  • Developing-world aid outside of health and nutrition. From what we’ve seen so far, health and nutrition are the most promising areas within developing-world aid. However, we remain open on this point, and are certainly more interested in this area than in the other areas listed in this section. We’re particularly interested in learning more about the “transparency/accountability/democracy” sector, which is moderately popular among today’s foundations and which we currently know very little about. Also see our writeups on microfinance, developing-world economic empowerment, disaster relief, agriculture, and education (as well as our summary of why we prefer global health and nutrition).


  • Frank Hecker on May 9, 2012 at 2:42 pm said:

    I think the meta-research area is well worth looking into, and dovetails nicely with some of the issues people have raised in connection with better ways to fund scientific research. I’ll be interested to see what you all report as a result of that investigation. (Incidentally, one of the people I’ve enjoyed reading on this topic is Michael Nielsen, author of “Reinventing Discovery”. Definitely a person to talk to if he’s not already on your list.)

  • David Barry on May 10, 2012 at 5:19 am said:

    I second Frank Hecker’s comment about Michael Nielsen and I thoroughly recommend “Reinventing Discovery” (Nielsen was a star at the uni I was a student at, but I don’t think I’m biased because of this). Open-access journals are only one part of his vision for the future of science research – he believes (and argues convincingly) that research can be made vastly more efficient through organising better collaboration and data-sharing between what are currently rival research groups.

  • Peter Hurford on May 11, 2012 at 1:05 am said:

    I’d love to see more elaboration on animal welfare work.

  • Peter Hurford on May 11, 2012 at 1:08 am said:

    Also, what do you see being the potential value to donating to meta-causes, as in causes that aim to get more people interested in donating to causes (Giving What We Can, arguably GiveWell itself, etc.)?

  • Colin Rust on May 16, 2012 at 9:13 pm said:

    Great post. But I do think it would be helpful to expand on this (as relates to environmental conservation):

    “Current GiveWell staff are primarily interested in humanitarian giving”

    For example, let’s say for argument’s sake it takes $1 million to save a species from extinction and the same amount of money would save a thousand human lives out of a population of 7 billion. How would you respond to someone who argues that while human lives are more valuable, they’re (we’re) not 7 million times more valuable (as the above numbers might crudely suggest although that’s obviously far from a necessary conclusion to put it mildly)?

    I’d (imperfectly) analogize the conservation vs. humanitarian decision to the local vs. global humanitarian one. You rightly challenge people and organizations that decide up front with minimal reflection they want to give locally. You argue that because you can get such a greater bang for the buck in terms of human welfare overseas, that must overwhelm other considerations. (By other considerations I mean e.g. the feeling of a greater moral responsibility to those closer to home and/or a greater confidence that one understands local problems and what will truly help.)

    Bottom line: I think it would helpful to analyze and flesh out the moral intuition that leads you to prioritize humanitarian interventions.

    I’m not pretending I have any answers here, by the way. In my own charitable giving, I’ve moved towards more of an emphasis on global health intervention while still giving significantly to local charities and relatively little to conservation. But I do think these are important questions.

  • Holden on May 21, 2012 at 9:15 am said:

    Colin, I don’t follow your reasoning. Say there are two different species with equal intrinsic moral value. Species A has a population of 10 trillion; species B has a population of 10. Are you saying that saving the lives of 10% of Species A is as valuable as saving the lives of 10% of Species B (I.e., that saving a single Species B life is a trillion times as valuable as saving a Species A life)?

  • Colin Rust on June 9, 2012 at 7:54 am said:

    Holden, thanks for the reply.

    I probably should have just left the example at: How should we think about the tradeoff between saving non-human species from extinction and saving human lives? One’s answer may depend on the species in question. One might value megafauna, tree frogs or insect species more or less than each other. I didn’t mean to suggest that all species are equally valuable, though I certainly see where you’re coming from with that interpretation of what I wrote.

    One kind of answer to this sort of question is to say that humanitarian giving and environmental giving (not primarily motivated by benefits for people) are incommensurable, that it isn’t really possible to give a clear rational basis for weighing one against the other. That’s how I read your statement about being “primarily interested in humanitarian giving”. And maybe incommensurability is the right answer and it’s just a pure value judgment with no “correct” answer. Still, it’s worth noting that’s a kind of answer that Givewell rejects in other contexts. E.g. you forcefully (and I think effectively) reject starting points like “I’m passionate about education, therefore I’m going to try to find the best education charity to give to.”

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